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How to influence people with confidence - and 3 classic mistakes to avoid

An experienced sales manager shares his key lessons.

WE OFTEN THINK of ‘influencer’ as a bit of a dirty word, especially with its modern-day association with bloggers and Instagram celebrities trying to sell us everything from fake tan to pistachio nuts.

But influencing people is an important skill, no matter what line of work you’re in, and it doesn’t have to be underhanded. In fact, honesty is essential if you want to really influence people, whether it’s a prospective client, your boss or a colleague.

“Growing and maintaining positive relationships in business, or in the workplace, is underpinned at all times by honestly and authenticity,” says Niall O’Connell, Technical Sales Manager for Rockwool Group in Ireland. “The second you deviate from honesty, the people you’re working with will lose trust. Trust depends on honesty and growth depends on trust – nobody gets sold a lemon twice!”

Rockwool is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of insulation and fire protection products. This means that Niall regularly pitches to the country’s leading architectural firms about why they should use Rockwool’s products on large scale construction projects. With Rockwool being used in buildings such as Dublin Airport, the Aviva Stadium, Trinity Hotel in Ballsbridge, and Capital Dock, the tallest building in Ireland, Niall is clearly a successful influencer who negotiates when the stakes are high.

“It’s difficult,” Niall admits. “Roles that are purely based on influencing, as opposed to roles that have a degree of influencing in them, can be different. Most people in customer-facing sales roles start at a lower level – possibly in retail, telesales or van sales – and move up to organisations where there’s a much higher level of influencing required. You can learn a lot along the way. There’s no substitute for being thrown in at the deep end, but good companies will support their employees and train them.”

Niall was fortunate in that regard, citing a former boss as a great mentor. “He had a level of confidence and a force of personality that helped him a lot, but not everybody can have that; not everybody is born with it. But certainly, I would say that by the time I met him he’d gone on quite a journey himself, because he was very open about how he learned to sell and take high-level meetings, for example.

“He was extremely good at listening, he was very strategic, he understood when to share information, and when not to share it. He had learned, and adapted what he had learned to fit his own style. Because you can learn all the skills in the world, but if they don’t sit naturally with how you are as a person, there’s absolutely no use to you, because you come across as unauthentic; you come across as too pushy.”

Ironically, being authentic doesn’t always come naturally. We’ve all done it: been over-formal, used outdated jargon or tried too hard to ‘close the deal’ when we’re in a business environment, especially when the stakes are high. These, says Niall, are very common mistakes that almost everybody makes at some point, but improving your confidence in the area of influencing people is a skill that can be learned.

“There are very few principles in influencing,” he says. “There are loads of different methods, but there’s only a handful of principles.” Niall cites those principles as:

Knowledge: “Research your product, idea or course of action. You need to understand what it is you’re going to tell somebody and have your desired outcome clear in your mind. There’s no point in having half an idea and going to your boss with it; there’s no point in having a problem that you want solved without having a number of solutions in your head already; there’s no point in working for a company that manufactures or sells a product without knowing the product really well.”

Understanding: “Understand the person that you want to influence. Where do they sit in the organisation? What level of influence do they have themselves? What are the pressures on their time? If it’s a customer – do they actually need the thing you’re trying to sell them? Somebody who wants to build long-term relationships within their organisation, or with their customers, will back away and not push when it’s clear that it’s of no advantage to the person that they’re trying to influence.”

Application: “This is very much based around human personalities. People are very different and like to be influenced in different ways. Some people, you can ask them to do something, and they’ll do it if it makes sense to them; they’re very straightforward. Other people are not straightforward; you need to bring them on a little bit of a journey so that they are primed to do the thing you want them to do.

“For example, in terms of influencing your boss, sometimes you have to manage the situation so that it seems like the boss came up with the idea themselves and you have to take your ego away from the whole thing! Sometimes, even when you feel like talking, it’s important to sit back and listen. Check your body language so that it doesn’t look like you’re just waiting for your turn to speak. It’s about achieving the result, it’s not about one person dominating the other.”

As with every skill, learning how to influence people takes time, and we all make mistakes. Here are three classic pitfalls to be aware of, according to Niall:

1. Not backing off

“When it’s clear that you’re not getting the ‘buying signals’, when it’s clear that the person you’re trying to influence isn’t biting, it’s a good idea not to push too hard. It may just be that the person that you’re trying to influence is having an off-day and you don’t want to run the risk of damaging a good relationship.”

2. Undervaluing your product or idea

“The influencer’s instinct is often to make compromises in order to get buy-in or close a sale. This can come from a lack of confidence or from impatience. Be wary of the consequences. For example, if you drop your price too much, it’s very hard to get it back up. If you abandon your principles, people may take advantage of you in the future. Compromise is important, but you should always know in advance where your tipping point is.”

3. Being too hasty

Take your time. Influencing of all sorts is fluid in nature and there are times when it’s appropriate to think about what’s been said by both sides. There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘Can I come back to you on that?’

As mentioned, trust is essential when it comes to building relationships, and it’s much more easily achieved if the principles outlined are done right at the beginning, says Niall. “If you come to somebody well-prepared, and you understand where they’re coming from, they’ll be much more inclined to trust you.”

More: ‘Life is one big negotiation, after all’: How I got my job as a world-class mediator>

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